As I begin my dissertation chapter on Matthew Lewis, I try to think of not only what research I can contribute to the field but also what related teaching opportunities and activities could be useful in future classes. One possibility for teaching well-known literature is often to include a lesson on adaptation: how can a text change by portraying it through a different medium and all the different lenses that that involves? It helps me to reemphasize to my students the idea that the way a story is formed is a choice made by the author, director, artist, etc. This helps students to see literature as a crafted piece of art that invites multiple interpretations, not just a story that portrays objective, black-and-white facts. Particularly in the case of complex classic literature (or most literature, for that matter), the creator of an adaptation must make drastic sacrifices to reduce a 400-page text to an audience-friendly film under two hours. This is why we have so many different film versions of texts like Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, etc. (not to mention children’s books). Each one is different.
I know of three adaptations of Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel, The Monk: two versions in English in 1972 and 1990, and the most recent and highly-anticipated French version, Le Moine, released in 2011. Those who have read The Monk would probably not be surprised to learn that all three versions are difficult to find: the novel is complex, with many simultaneous plots that would make a film version seem practically impossible without sacrificing some great material. In terms of the viewing experience of this film, it is a little on the slow side, though the scenery and atmosphere are beautiful and create a believable (if bleak) setting. It is certainly not an action film and involves a lot of contemplative silences and slow discussions. The English subtitles, while understandable, are probably not extremely accurate (or grammatical), placing more weight on the visuals to carry the film. However, while I would not say that Le Moine is a particularly fantastic film—especially with little or no knowledge of the novel—it does do some interesting things that could lead to a pedagogical discussion among higher-level students of what the Gothic does in the late eighteenth century and the way subtle changes in an adaptation help to accentuate those features.
The central storyline of Lewis’s text follows the monk Ambrosio, who, seduced by the demonic Matilda (in disguise), proceeds to seduce the virginal Antonia (his sister), kill her (his) mother and eventually rape and kill her before standing trial at the Inquisition. He is then rescued by the devil, sells his soul, and is dropped off a cliff by Satan. Already, this sounds like it could be a Lord-of-the-Rings-sized trilogy! However, large parts of the novel deviate from this storyline to follow Antonia’s fiancé Don Lorenzo, his sister Agnes, and her lover Don Raymond. Agnes, a nun, has become pregnant by Don Raymond (after a long adventure of his own, involving banditti and the Bleeding Nun) and is imprisoned in the nunnery, where she gives birth and coddles her dead child in one of the most horrific scenes in Gothic literature.
Though it includes a few brief scenes of Agnes’s discovery and punishment and the growing love between Antonia and Don Lorenzo, the film, of course, focuses primarily on the relationship between Ambrosio and Matilda. Matilda, donning a stunningly-unsettling porcelain mask, enters the monastery as a deformed plague victim, who has an uncanny ability to quiet the “voices” in Ambrosio’s head. The devil is already among the citizens of Madrid according to this version, as an exorcism and the warning “It’s here!” foretell Matilda’s identity and Ambrosio’s fated association with her. The multiple layers of deformity, masking, and victimhood suggest an interesting link between illness/ misfortune and theatricality/artifice and (of course) the devil’s involvement in all of it. The exorcisms and the known presence of the devil suggest a more established and ongoing battle with evil that does not appear as strongly as in the novel, though corruption within the church is still present, notably in the Prioress’s dealings with Agnes.
One of the things that I found most interesting in this adaptation, however, is the emphasis on punishment. When Ambrosio turns Agnes over to the Prioress, he tells her that she should want and welcome punishment for her crimes. Yet, Agnes is the only one punished in the film (and she quickly dies of starvation, cursing Ambrosio’s name until the end). Romantic Gothic literature is nothing if not surprisingly conservative: crazy, evil, and scandalous things happen, but the ending is almost always about punishing those involved in some of the cruelest ways possible. In this way, it acts very much like Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque: controlled chaos turns peasants into princes and vice versa, but at the end of the day, order is restored and all goes back to normal.
In the novel, Agnes survives, but the Prioress who imprisoned her is graphically trampled to death by an angry mob. Ambrosio himself spends weeks in the dungeons of the Inquisition before he finally gives his soul to Matilda in exchange for his freedom. She delivers, but then she (as the devil) also brutally kills him. In the film, however, Ambrosio does end up crawling through the desert after his trial and is confronted by the devil. However, he markedly redeems himself (to some extent): when the devil offers to take him to paradise in exchange for his soul, he asks for the now-insane Antonia’s happiness, instead. He makes a choice to suffer, but that suffering is not imposed upon him, making him into a tragic hero of sorts. A martyr. Lewis’s monstrous and desperate villain of Catholicism has become a creature much more akin to later fiction starting with Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the monster is not all monster at all… or at least provokes a great deal of pity and admiration.
Despite this, the film is disappointingly conservative in other ways for modeling itself after one of the most shocking novels of all time. Empire magazine says it best in its review of the film when its author says, “An austere, cerebral reading of a book which is unfettered, blood-bolstered and wildly sensationalist — Lewis is the father of torture porn, not a master of subtle chills. It’s interesting and unsettling, with a charismatic lead performance, but nowhere near as shocking as it should be.” The most shocking second half of the novel is condensed into about twenty minutes, taking attention away from Ambrosio’s depravity and giving instead a slow, quiet view of monastic life and one man’s psychological struggle within it.